High morals running wild: Anna Pavord continues her Workshop series with advice for a couple who want a wildlife garden that is not just a mess

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WE ARE attempting to create a garden which restores a little piece of land to nature, in essence a wildlife garden which looks attractive and where we can also grow native plants, vegetables, fruit and herbs.

While our enthusiasm and aims are high, our skills and knowledge seem to be in inverse proportion. Our budget is extremely limited and as we both work full-time, lack of time is also a drawback. We will only buy or use organic plants and matter, and discount even blood and bone as one of us is a strict vegan, the other a vegetarian.

Our garden is 180ft long; terrace- house narrowish. We also have a brick courtyard off the back of the house, which looks out to the old washhouse.

The back garden is partly bordered on one side by large conifers and on the other by a rose hedge. Some of the garden is shady and sheltered, some in full sun and windswept. All is wallowing in lovely Kent clay.

At the back we have a couple of small apple trees, a hawthorn tree and forsythia. Most of the garden is laid to grass (not a lawn) with some messy beds of bits and pieces. We usually let the grass grow each year and we have an amazing selection of resilient weeds. We love our garden and, although it still manages to look pretty when the primroses are out and the rose hedge is in flower, we feel it deserves better treatment.

Sarah Jackman and Martin Darling have been in their house at Pluckley, Kent, for four years. She is 29 and works in Tonbridge for the Charities Aid Foundation. He is a year older, and works long shifts for Unigate dairies.

Their house, one of a terrace with the typical arched windows of the surrounding Dering estate, has a garden which is about eight times as long as it is wide.

They garden rather on the boom- and-bust principle. The booms have provided two superb compost bins built out of old pallets, a herb garden which is sliding quietly into bust mode, a small orchard, and a productive vegetable garden, laid out according to the principles suggested in Veganic Gardening by Kenneth O'Brien. Straw is laid thickly to make a surface for the paths.

The main problem was to find a way to manage the garden so that it looked good, while still respecting the strongly held views of its owners. They have two cats which act as if the wildlife lured into the garden by politically correct planting is for their benefit. Slow-worms and goldfinches have been among the casualties. 'Banish the cats,' I suggested, but that didn't go down too well.

The garden, being so long in proportion to its width, needed to be broken up in some way, and walking from the house to the end boundary (a good screen of hawthorn) it seemed that you could divide the space into three areas, each with a different feel and function.

Letting nature have its way does not necessarily provide the best or most diverse habitats for wildlife. On Pluckley's rich, heavy clay (there is a brickworks just opposite), nature will provide a great deal of rank growth, excellent elders, docks and brambles.

They could rule at the back of the garden, where Ms Jackman and Mr Darling had made a big pile of logs, a no-go area to remain undisturbed. The logs, they hope, will attract wood-boring insects, fungi, hibernating hedgehogs.

'I felt that we had quite a lot of ground here,' said Ms Jackman. 'We had an opportunity to give back some of it to nature.' But the rest of the garden, the other two areas could be managed.

The area closest to the house was the most natural place for a flower garden and could be the most ordered. The garden could then drift naturally through to wilderness at its furthest boundary, taking in the orchard and the productive vegetable garden on its way.

The difficulty with this area was the left-hand boundary, planted with the 'large conifers' that Ms Jackman had mentioned in her letter. They were golden Leyland cypress, gobbling up this sunny, south- facing side of the garden with alarming speed.

In a long narrow garden, the dimension you least want to lose is the width, and these horrors had already taken about 3ft. Fortunately they had been topped, but they needed trimming up the side, too. The best time is September. I would risk doing it now, rather than leaving it until next summer. You can't cut into the old wood of these trees as they won't resprout, so you must continually keep on top of the new growth.

Even when trimmed, I would not make a flower bed next to this hedge. It would be too greedy. This left the shady, north-facing side of the garden as the only place for planting. Fortunately, there are as many plants that like shade as sun, and there was already a superb little mahonia flowering which could become the centrepiece of the new bed.

What could go with it? Solomon's seal, snowdrops, the bronze-leaved celandine 'Brazen Hussey' discovered in a wood just over the border in Sussex, bugle (either bronze or green-leaved), wood anemones, the handsome marbled version of our wild arum, Arum italicum 'Pictum', perhaps some ferns such as the hart's tongue, or the handsome shuttlecock, which would bring the border through into May and June with spires of foxgloves in between.

I am thinking particularly of plants that have wild native cousins, so that the border, though a gardened border, will still be in sympathy with the generally natural environment that Ms Jackman and Mr Darling want to create around them. You could add violets, snakeshead fritillaries, variegated honesty and lily of the valley for the smell.

The honesty and the foxgloves can easily be grown from seed, in rows in the vegetable garden and transplanted in autumn. Money need not be wasted on plants of those. But Ms Jackman and Mr Darling had been trying to grow snakeshead fritillaries from seed. That is making life harder for themselves at this stage than it need be. Christmas is coming. You can get 100 fritillary bulbs for pounds 4 (plus VAT) from Parkers.

Because they love their garden so much and have such high hopes for it, I wanted to launch in straightaway and dig a border for them. Now is the time to do it, ready for planting next spring. 'We have fiddled about here and fiddled about there,' Mr Darling said slightly despairingly; but while their backs were turned, the fruits of the fiddling tended to get lost.

Concentrate on one area at a time, I suggested. Get one patch properly under control before you move on to the next.

An informal wooden screen stretching the whole width of the garden would divide this first plot from the rest of the garden, which would be wilder.

The screen could easily be made with wood salvaged from skips. Ms Jackman and Mr Darling are a bit short of places to put climbers, and such a screen, with a wide gap in the middle so you could pass easily through with a wheelbarrow, would mean they could grow hops and vines. Perhaps even a rose.

Mr Darling wanted a pond. 'I like the idea of sitting by a pond with a glass of lager on a hot day,' he said. He also thought frogs would like it. (The pond, not the lager.) It would fit on the other side of the screen, before the orchard. The shape could be informal, tapering to a boggy area where primulas and marsh marigolds would grow well.

Gardening, when you have little time, no money and are learning everything the hard way, can be a dispiriting business. There was no lack of spirits here, though. Nor ideals.

Sarah Jackman recommends The Wildlife Garden Month by Month by Jackie Bennett (David & Charles pounds 14.99). Native plants and seeds are available from Emorsgate Seeds, Terrington Court, Terrington St Clement, Kings Lynn, Norfolk PE34 4NT (0553 829028); Kingsfield Conservation Nursery, Broadenham Lane, Winsham, Chard, Somerset TA20 4JF (0460 30070); Landlife Wildflowers Ltd, The Old Police Station, Lark Lane, Liverpool L17 8UU (051-728 7011). All do mail order. Send SAEs for catalogues.

(Photograph omitted)